The longer I spend in the K-12 classroom the more I think that bullying is the single largest problem in American education today.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the documentary Bully on Netflix. I sat and wept watching stories of kids in rural America dealing with hatred, isolation, anger, and fear. These kids are just trying to discover and express who they really are and facing daily abuse for it.
One responsibility I have as a middle school teacher at my current (high-end suburban private) school is to present twice a year at 7th and 8th grade chapel. A couple of weeks ago, I told the students about experiences I had with bullying beginning in 7th grade when a boy came up to me in home ec. class and said, "everyone thinks you're gay." It all went downhill from there. There was much teasing, taunting, and some pushing (I was lucky). By sophomore year of high school I felt completely isoated and ended up trasferring schools (a decision that changed my life for the better for many reasons). As a freshman in college, I ended up with a homophobic roommate and had to move into a different dorm. As a sophomore in college, I ended up with another homophobic roommate and had to move dorm rooms. As a public school teacher in California, I got called "faggot" multiple times a week at my urban middle school of 1,100 6th-8th graders. Bullying has long been a part of my life. How does it end? How can we eradicate this hatred from our schools? Kids can't function at school if they don't feel safe being who they are.
Adolescents feel the need to put each other down as a way to feel better about themselves. How is this culture created in our schools? How can a school tackle this issue? I've heard horror stories about schools trying "zero tolerance" policies that severely punish relatively minor offenses. In most schools (in my limited experience), the problem is a lack of buy-in from the whole school community. How many teachers in America hear "faggot" being used as a durragatory term and never do anything about it? We need to equip teachers with clear boundaries and strategies for talking with students about using foul, offensive language. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper about school violence and found that verbal bullying is a form of "low level violence" that is often an indicator of future more serious violence. I believe this to be true. It's conditioning-- if a kid can call another kid "faggot" within earshot of another teacher and nothing happens, they'll do it again... and then to more kids. If a kid can call fifteen kids at their school "faggot" (and get away with it), maybe they'll start pushing kids into lockers or tripping kids in the hallway (methinks the hallway and the school yard are where most bullying occurs). It escalates from there.
What terrifies me is that in schools like the one I taught at in California, there are far bigger fish to fy to than one kid calling another a name. Administrators were dealing with gang fights, drug dealing, weapons, and a myriad of other challenging issues. Bullying goes to the bottom of the list.
This is a huge issue and I don't know how we tackle it. I do believe it needs to be a top-down decision in K-12 schools. Administrators need to be able to speak openly about bullying (not shying away from using words with their faculty that may make some folks uncomfortable). We need to let teachers know that (no matter what their religious affiliation or personal beliefs about homosexuality), they must intervene when they hear hateful words. There must be consequences. And we must teach our adolescents to respect and celebrate one another's differences.
I sing. I conduct. I teach. I read. I love argyle. I wear mismatched socks. I drink a lot of coffee. I run. I want to make beautiful music always.